They are not ‘Red Indians’, Mr. President!By Kofi Ellison
In his speech to the Ghana Parliament, President Kufour committed a grave act of Bushian proportions when he referred to Native Americans as Red Indians! Whoa? The president was salivating on recent published scientific findings which confirm that cocoa beans has several medicinal values, other than servicing the sweet tooth of chocolate lovers! Said the president: “Mr Speaker, interestingly, researchers around the globe have recently taken to publishing findings about the crop’s nutritional, health-enhancing and other aphrodisiac properties which justify why the original owners, the red Indians of America appropriately called it the food of the gods. Apparently, it is the best food there is, and Ghanaians must therefore begin to use more of it locally”. According to the BBC, one such study, presented to the European Society of Cardiology (ESC), suggests that polyphenols - which occur naturally in cocoa - may help to maintain cardiovascular health. An America television program called “Sunday Morning” on the CBS television channel reported similar findings that eating chocolate (not in excess, of course) would do the heart good! The Journal of Nutrition (vol 130) provides similar findings on the health benefits of chocolate which is made from cocoa beans. As a major cocoa producer, these scientific findings must be good news to Ghanaians. More demand for cocoa products translate to more money for cocoa farmers and the Ghanaian economy.
When Christopher Columbus (the anglicized name of the Italian Cristoforo Colombo, who 'discovered' America!), arrived on the shores of America, he had gotten lost. Colombus was on his way to India (in Asia) to procure pepper and other such condiments for Europeans.
Columbus and his crew got lost and entered what became American shores in 1492 . Colombus thought he had reached one of the islands in India! When his loss was brought to his attention, Colombus concluded that the people he had encountered were like the Indians of Asia, and promptly called them "Red Indians". Of course, these noble people were neither Indian nor red! That fact notwithstanding the entire inhabitants from Canada to Argentina became known as Red Indians. The term was derogatory and pejorative. The name stuck for several centuries, as did similar derogatory names used for indigenous people ‘discovered’ elsewhere by Europeans. For example, Europeans who encountered Africans in what became South Africa called the indigenous people Bushmen! Conquerors apparently determine how history is written, and what names are appropriate for the conquered. Descendants of captured Africans who were enslaved in the Americas were called Negroes. For a long time, the ‘n’ could not be capitalized to underscore the subservient role of ‘Negroes’ in the American pantheon. Naturally, attitudes do change. As Nelson Mandela said in his inaugural presidential address, the days when South Africans of European descent could refer to Africans as ‘kafir” were over. Similarly in the United States, names and references that are deemed to be disparaging to others have been consigned to the dustbin of history.
Thus it is now a fighting word to call an African-American ‘Negro’. And one could be scalped for referring to a Native American as a ‘Red Indian’.
Perhaps president Kufour has been watching old American western movies, too much! In such movies, the ‘Red Indians’, with their featherly hats were distinguished by their stupidity. No one would make such movies anymore in the USA.
As an African living in the United States, I’m always astounded by how much uninformed some of my fellow Africans are, of changes brought about by the African American civil rights revolution in the 1960's. Some of us seem to be stuck in time, and we make references to people and issues as if nothing has changed!
The presidential campaign of American billionaire Ross Perot ran into deep trouble when he mis-spoke regarding African Americans. No, he did not refer to African Americans by the despicable “N” word. In an address to an African American professional group, there was a huge uproar, when Ross Perot told a group of African Americans, "you people"! For Ghanaians, ‘you people’ is akin to saying ‘yaanom’ in Twi when referring to others from a different ethnicity!!
I had to read the Riot Act to a friend who happens to be an MP in Ghana’s parliament. On a visit to Washington, DC, nearly seven years ago, I took the MP to a Ghanaian restaurant. Half-way into our meals, a group of disabled school children and their teachers entered the restaurant. I told the MP that the students were from a nearby school for the deaf.
In a rather concerned tone, my friend said ‘oh, they are deaf and dumb’! I quickly corrected him that the students may be deaf, but certainly not ‘dumb’. I am sure he now supports a public policy that ensures that disability ought not mean inability!!!
Further, I assured my MP-friend that if he were an American public official, such impolitic remark by him would certainly have resulted in calls for his resignation, or at best his ‘re-education’, in sensitivity training. I reminded him of James Watt who served as Secretary of the Interior under president Reagan.
James Watt remained undaunted in the face of criticism from the press and environmental interests when he authorized the sale of more than 1 billion tons of coal from federal lands in the state of Wyoming. Mr. Watt however, felt unconcerned to the criticisms, because as he explained it; members of his coal-advisory panel included "a black ... a woman, two Jews, and a cripple." This comment got James Watt fired in 1983.
Of course, I’m not calling for a similar decision on president Kufour. However, had the president made such a remark on a visit to the United States, his entire speech would have been drowned out by the remark.
In his first presidential address four years ago, Mr. Kufour advised Ghanaians to be very civil in their language towards others. One hopes that the president’s speech writers will do enough research to understand that using certain words to describe foreigners is as unacceptable as ones used by some Ghanaians to refer to other Ghanaians.